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General Placement, Note Heads, Stem Direction, Stem Length, Beams, Ties and Slurs, Time Spacing and Common Errors.


If you are using a computer program to generate your music, notation is done automatically by the software. It is not always done correctly and there are areas that require a little knowledge in order to make the music look professionally done.

To help you learn about notation, we suggest that you start by finding a professionally engraved piece of sheet music in the style that you wish to produce, and then verify the following recommended placements by locating each of the items.


General Placement

Titles are centered on the page.

Dedications are centered over the title. The point size is smaller and usually in italics.

The composer's name is on the right side of the page, flush with the right hand margin.

The arranger or editor is under the composer.

The lyricist's name is on the left side of the page, flush with the left hand margin.

Tempo markings are flush left over the time signature.

The instrument name is flush left between the title and tempo marking.

The copyright notice is centered at the bottom of the title page.

Tempo instructions in the body of the music are placed over the staff and, except for a tempo are usually in Roman type. Place the tempo instruction at the exact place that the tempo changes. If a time signature accompanies the tempo change, the tempo instruction should be aligned with the time signature.

Temporary modifications and instructions (rit., rall., accel., dolce, marcato, mf, p,  ff, cresc., dim. etc.) go under the staff in single line music, or between the staves in a system in keyboard music. In vocal music, words of instruction go over the staff. Be careful to place the beginning of the instruction word exactly at the place in the music that it affects.

Playing instructions such as pizz., unis, div., etc. should appear in Roman type over the staff exactly at the place in the music that is affected. Bowings go above the staff.

In scores, tempo headings are placed above instrument groupings, and temporary changes are repeated for each staff where there is music affected by the change.

Articulations and modifying symbols like staccato marks, accents, tenutos, and fermatas, go on the note head side. For a consecutive group of accented notes, it is sometimes appropriate to keep all accents on the same side rather than skip above or below the staff. Place marks for clarity and to avoid staff lines.

Fingerings go as close to the note head as possible.


Note Heads

In an interval of a second written on a single stem, the lower note is placed on the left. When aligning two chords with displaced notes and with stems going in opposite directions, the regular or properly placed note heads are aligned.

When placing accidentals, start at the top of the chord.


Stem Direction

For single line music, use stems down when notes are on the middle line or above. Stems up are used when notes are on the second space and below.

Stem direction for chords is determined by the note furthest from the middle. If the highest note of the chord is further from the middle line than the lowest, the stem will go down. If the lowest note if further from the middle, the stem will go up. The same procedure is used to determine the direction of the stems for a broken chord or group of notes connected by a beam.


Stem Length

Normal length is one octave (three and one half spaces).

Stems of notes on ledger lines which would normally not reach the middle line of the staff should be extended to the middle line.

When two voices share one staff, stems may go in opposite directions. Stem length may be shortened.



Beam slant follows the direction of the group of notes it connects; either upward or downward. When notes go in different directions, the beginning and ending notes determine the slant of the beams. As a general rule, the beam slant increases as the interval of the first and last notes increase. The amount of the slant is relative and not proportional and should not exceed a slant of one and one half spaces up or down.


Ties and Slurs

Ties have less curve than slurs and go from note head to note head opposite the direction of the stem when used in single line music. When notes of a chord are tied, each tied note receives its own tie with upper ties going upward and lower ties going downward. When a tie is used in a slurred group, the slur must encompass the tie.

Slurs are placed below the note heads if all the stems go up. Slurs are placed above the note heads if all the stems go down. When a slur covers notes with both up and down stems, the slur goes over the note heads.

When modifying marks such as accents or dots accompany a slur, the slur encompasses the marks.

When slurring a chord on a single stem, use one slur only. When a part has more than one voice, separate slurs are used and are placed above or below the stems.


Time Spacing

A note head indicates when the note begins and the space after the note head indicates the duration of the note. Therefore, a half note will have more space than a quarter note. Space allotted for a note is relative and not mathematical. Notes of equal value are spaced the same distance apart.


Common Errors

  • Tempo marking not aligned with time signature.
  • Important heading (composer, instrument, etc.) omitted or not properly placed.
  • Dynamic marking to the left of the note it affects instead of being under it.
  •  Slurs on the wrong side of the note head.
  • Slurs between the note head and the articulation.
  •  Incorrect stem direction.
  • Crescendo and Diminuendo marks that do not start or stop where the actual crescendo or diminuendo starts or stops 
  • Incorrect spelling.
  • Too many measures per line.
  • Use of a half rest in three-four time.
  • Very important symbol like a repeat sign or coda sign omitted.


A comprehensive article about music notation is beyond the scope of this site. I would like to recommend the following books as resource material for those of you who would like to know more.


Music Notation by Gardner Read, published by Taplinger Publishing Company, N.Y., 1969.

The Art of Music Engraving & Processing by Ted Ross, published by Charles H. Hansen Music and Books, Inc., Miami Beach, Florida, 1970.